Sunday, 26 April 2009

The decline of the Encyclopedia: a timely object lesson?

The demise of Microsoft's Encyclopedia Encarta has unsurprisingly kicked off another round of agitated discussion about the future of traditional publishing. Neerav, a fellow librarian/social media geek, has been doing some muck-raking of his own to encourage some meaningful dialogue on the topic. He recalls an early experiment by Britannica which, if it had been continued, might have made it the default "Wikipedia":

As Mark Pesce describes in his talk The Alexandrine dilemma, Britannica online was a subscription-based reference site for 5 years until 19th October 1999 when “the online version of Britannica containing the complete unexpurgated content of the many-volume print edition was unlocked and made freely available, at no cost to its users”.

For the next few months Britannica Online became one of the most popular sites on the internet but in the face of having to service this traffic via more and more servers and escalating data transfer costs management decided to retreat into their shell, putting the content behind a paywall and charging a $7/month subscription fee. Traffic soon plummeted to previous low levels.

.......The issues they faced were not new: all online publishers have struggled to find out how they can turn high-quality content into a money-making business where profits are greater than costs.

Shifting back to a subscription model reflected a natural conservative urge by management to avoid relying on fickle online advertising income but in the end it was also Britannica’s downfall...

Talk about 20/20 vision in hindsight!

There is a reason news and general reference have been the early fatalities in the war of free vs subscription publishing. The fact that this kind of information is available in so many forms (such as the same news article being reproduced by dozens of news sources) reduces its value as a commodity. Likewise, general reference is the reproduction of (relatively) common knowledge and thus lends itself very well to being written by "the crowds".

Publishers would do well to examine their content and identify what elements are unique and what is freely available. For example, is there enduring value in providing subscriptions to court cases and legislation? Probably not when the same content is freely available on government and LII websites. BUT providing professional commentary and research tools for the same is unique to publishers and their highly qualified authors and editors. It requires time and skill and a much higher level of knowledge and analysis than your average Wikipedia article. This is not easily or freely reproduced; this is a commodity with high value. This is what publishers should be focusing their resources on.

Likewise publishers should be engaging more closely with their clients to identify what is high value to them. What do they truly seek when they turn to us? What do they see as our core offering? How do we provide it so that there is mutual satisfaction that the cost of the product (both to produce it and to purchase it) equals its perceived value?

I strongly believe that publishers (and librarians) will continue to have a role to play as stewards and promoters of unique and high quality content. But we need to listen very carefully to clients and to the general market in order to understand exactly what that content should be.